My turn: Left out in the rain

Posted: Friday, September 18, 2009

Like everyone, mom and dad had their imperfections. But, they taught me by example that everyone has a right to a life of dignity, free from want. I can't remember a time when we didn't have a needy relative, neighbor or even a stranger sharing our comfortable middle class suburban house.

I vividly recall one evening at dinner with my family in a nice San Francisco restaurant. We sat behind the picture window in the warm glow, safe from the cold rain outside. I looked up to find a gaunt, homeless gentleman (they were called "bums" back then) shivering and staring through the window at our full table. Dad didn't say a word. He reached in his pocket, handed me a folded five dollar bill and nodded at the fellow standing outside. I will never forget the look in that man's eyes when this 12-year-old runt, who had never wanted for anything in his life, came out to the sidewalk and pressed the bill in his hand.

In the past 50 years the face of homelessness has changed a lot. Many are surprised to learn that the average age of a homeless person in Alaska is 9. And the number of poor and homeless is growing. The Juneau Homeless Coalition estimates the number of homeless here at between 400 and 500. I expect it is much higher than that. During the last census, the population of Juneau households below the federal poverty line grew 55 percent faster than those above. That was during the big boom in cruise ship tourism. I hope the new census will show the trend slowing or reversed, but I fear not.

I reject the lie we tell ourselves to excuse the shame of homelessness in America. I am tired of the hand-wringing and the lament of, "We just don't have the resources to provide decent housing for all our citizens!" Let's be honest. It is not about resources. We have plenty.

It is about allocation and priorities. As a community we choose to build another ski lift, another swimming pool, another high school. We choose to cover our soccer field with Astro Turf, to build cruise ship facilities and aircraft hangers and tourist attractions. These public amenities are often great things - they enhance the quality of life for many, if not most of our citizens.

I just don't believe they trump our responsibility to ensure that no one is left out in the rain tonight.

Fifty years ago, five bucks was a good bit of cash. My dad didn't miss it. But, to the guy outside the restaurant, it was miraculous.

In society, we harness the power of many to do truly miraculous things. We come together and pool our contributions and tax dollars to make a community. That is the responsibility of citizenship. We build schools and ski lifts and airports and swimming pools. We could also house the homeless.

Just $100,000 annually would provide the critical rental assistance that would enable 17 households to move into permanent, decent housing. In turn, it would generate the market demand to construct about $3 million in new housing for the city's tax roll. It would add about $200,000 a year in new economic activity for our local vendors - utilities, building materials, services. Most important, it would mean a chance at a better life for that 9-year-old.

• Dan Austin lives in downtown Juneau. He says he has battled homelessness in Juneau as general manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Society for 12 years.

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